The hardest choice Demaryius Thomas' mom will make

15 Years of Waiting (2:33)

In this E:60 exclusive, Katina Smith, the mother of Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, speaks about her release from prison and the joy of seeing her son play football in person for the first time. (2:33)

DEMARYIUS THOMAS HAS just sent his mother a picture of the most unlikely Super Bowl ticket of all, the one intended for her, and now Katina Smith has a few days to decide whether she's prepared to take it.

It's been just six months since President Barack Obama granted her clemency and released her from federal prison 15 years into a 20-year drug sentence. It's been 10 weeks since she left a halfway house and moved back home; eight weeks since she bought her first cellphone; five weeks since she learned to drive again; and four weeks since she met some of her nieces and nephews for the first time. It's been two days since her most recent panic attack, which she spent holed up in her bedroom, overwhelmed by the freedoms and stresses of the outside world.

"I'm like a child," she tells Demaryius during a phone call. "I have to relearn everything. It's information overload, and my head is about to explode."

Her transition back into society has had its stressful moments, but never more so than this week. Relatives call for Super Bowl tickets. Strangers on the Internet complain to her about Demaryius' dropped passes. Her parole officer says she needs to find a job, enroll in college, submit to another drug test and fill out paperwork if she wants to travel to the Super Bowl in San Francisco. He has questions about her potential itinerary, and Katina has questions, too -- all of which she asks Demaryius each morning during their daily calls.

"How big is the stadium?" "How will I get there?" "What do people wear in San Francisco?" "Am I ready to make a trip like this?"

She spent 15 years cut off from America in a 20-by-20-foot concrete cell, and now she has an invitation to the biggest American spectacle of all.

A series of counselors and former inmates had told her to take it slow in the months after her release, to transition gradually: a first-generation cellphone before a smartphone; email before Facebook; short outings to familiar places before any ambitious trips. She moved back to the quiet of rural Dublin, Georgia, even though she would prefer living in Atlanta. She stays with her sister even as Demaryius finalizes the purchase on her own five-bedroom dream house. He bought her a brand-new Camaro with the nicest trims, but first she had to retake the state driving test and figure out how to work a stereo system that was missing its tape deck.

She already took one trip to a divisional playoff game in Denver in the middle of January -- the best weekend of her life, she says -- but the fatigue that followed left her with a headache that lasted a week. She came home, turned off her phone, closed the door to her bedroom and read the same Bible verses about humility and simplicity that she studied each morning in prison. She finds relief in routine, in being momentarily confined. Sometimes she rereads the letter Obama sent to her along with her official notice of clemency from the White House. "Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust," he had written.

A few days before her release from prison, a counselor had talked to her about situations that could trigger anxiety: unfamiliar places, disorientation, strangers, big crowds, loud noises and sudden excitement.

She wonders: How in the world can she go to the Super Bowl?

But how can she not?

FOR 4,568 DAYS in prison, she kept a picture in her cell of the last time she traveled to see her son play, at a junior high basketball game in 1999. The bleachers were mostly empty that night. The court was made of rubber. Both teams were coed. Demaryius made two 3-pointers while Katina watched in a sweatshirt with his nickname, Bay-Bay, stitched across the chest. They posed for a picture in the parking lot and then drove home, where the next morning they were jolted awake by the sound of 14 federal agents kicking in the front door.

The agents executed a search warrant and found several hundred dollars of rolled-up cash, money that was connected to a small drug ring led by Katina's mother, Minnie Pearl. Katina was charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. The crime carried a mandatory minimum sentence of at least 20 years in federal prison.

"That must be some kind of mistake," Katina remembered saying to her lawyer, at their first meeting, because she had expected probation or maybe a few months in jail. She had no criminal record. She had never used drugs. At the time of her arrest, she was working the overnight shift at a clothing factory to support Demaryius and his two younger sisters. The "sophisticated drug ring," as prosecutors described it, was run out of a rotting and abandoned gas station near Minnie's trailer, where customers came to spend $10 or $15 at a time. The government's evidence indicated that Katina had neither dealt drugs herself nor been paid for helping her mother store the extra cash.

"She was doing me a favor, really," Minnie said. "She was a bit player at most."

The government offered Katina a plea deal of four years if she testified against Minnie, but Katina refused to turn against her mother. She chose instead to risk abandoning her three children for the next 20 years by taking the case to trial. "It was what I felt I had to do as a daughter, but I'll never forgive myself as a mother," Katina said. The government had wiretaps of her talking about drug money and 14 witnesses lined up to testify against her. Her own lawyer never called a single witness. The jury deliberated for an hour. "She's a good mother with so many factors in her favor," the lawyer pleaded at sentencing, but the only factors that mattered were working against her.

The average drug sentences had tripled in length during the late 1980s, after Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose and the Boston-based Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, pushed harsh sentencing legislation through Congress. The penalties were worst for crack, and worst still in the South, and worst of all for black people and minorities, who typically received sentences 25 percent longer than white people for similar crimes.

"I'm sorry," the judge told Katina, explaining that congressional sentencing laws left him little choice but to give her the full 20 years with no possibility of parole.

She moved into a prison in Tallahassee, Florida, to share a cell with her mother, who had been sentenced to life without parole, and Demaryius moved in with five different relatives over the next three years. For a while he refused to visit her in prison, angry at what he considered a betrayal. "You chose this," he told his mother once, and his words sent her spiraling into depression. Only after he left home for Georgia Tech did Demaryius finally decide to visit her, after playing a football game in Tallahassee. Seeing his mother so anguished and lonely thawed his anger. He started phoning her each week, and then eventually each day, and she watched his career take shape on the scratchy box television bolted to the wall of the prison lounge.

She lost one appeal while Demaryius was at Georgia Tech. She lost another before the Broncos selected him in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft. When Demaryius and the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in 2014, Katina and Minnie made pompoms out of old newspapers and decorated their faces with blue and orange crayons.

Demaryius called Katina from his hotel room the night before the game, and he was on the verge of tears. "This doesn't feel right," she remembered him saying. "You should be here."

She calmed him down. They prayed together. Then she gave him the same advice she offered before every game: "No regrets. No fear," she said.

HER FINAL APPEALS went nowhere. Her petition for a reduced sentence failed. By Katina's 15th year in federal prison, another lawyer had dropped her case and explained that her only chance left was a pardon from the president, by which he really meant she had no chance at all. More than 35,000 federal prisons had applications pending for presidential relief. Obama had granted fewer than 50 during the entirety of his time in office. Katina went to the prison's law library, filled out an application, sent it off in the fall of 2014 and resigned herself to serving out the rest of her term. "I'm out of options," she wrote in an email to one friend. "I might miss his whole NFL career. I'm stuck."

Meanwhile, in Washington, a frustrated Obama had run out of options, too. The federal prison system was in crisis -- 40 percent of facilities overcrowded, 50 percent over-budget and the system as a whole more than 800 percent larger than it had been just 30 years earlier. Three decades of mandatory-minimum drug sentences had swelled the federal prison population from 24,000 to more than 200,000 prisoners, half of whom were serving time for nonviolent drug offenses.

Legislation to change sentencing policy had stalled in Congress. Federal prosecutors were continuing to push for long sentences. Determined to take action on his own, Obama traveled last summer to a federal prison in Oklahoma to meet with drug offenders and promised he would start relying more on clemencies and pardons. "It's a broken system," Obama said in one speech. "These punishments don't fit the crime."

"The human and moral costs of these policies are immeasurable," said Eric Holder, then the U.S. attorney general.

"My family has been hurting for so long," Demaryius wrote, in a letter of support to the White House on his mother's behalf.

"The simple truth is that I miss my children," Katina wrote in an application for relief that, unbeknownst to her, had begun its improbable journey from one federal office to the next in the complicated clemency process. The federal government was looking to release drug offenders who already had served a significant portion of their sentences -- people who had demonstrated remorse, who had no prior criminal record, no history of violence and no disciplinary issues in prison. Katina fit every category. Her application was approved by a team of pro bono lawyers; approved by the Department of Justice; approved by the attorney general; approved by the White House counsel and finally forwarded in early July to Obama's desk in the Oval Office for final consideration.

On July 13, Katina was working her usual shift in the prison commissary when the warden asked to see her upstairs. The warden seemed to meet with prisoners for only two reasons: to discipline them or notify them of a death in the family. Katina walked upstairs clutching a Bible to her chest, praying about Demaryius, praying about her two daughters. "Is everyone OK? Did something happen?" she asked, and a few seconds later the warden handed her a letter on White House stationery. It was stamped with a golden seal. It was signed by Obama. "I wanted to personally inform you that I will be granting your application for commutation," Obama had written.

She shrieked. She began to laugh, then cry. She ran downstairs to her cell to tell her mother and then to call Demaryius, who was in the middle of negotiating a five-year contract extension with the Broncos worth $70 million. She reached him only a few minutes before Obama made a public announcement that he was signaling the end of the drug war by granting clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders, the largest number of releases by a president in a single day since the 1960s.

"Bay-Bay, I'm getting out," Katina said, when Demaryius answered his phone.

"What?" Demaryius asked. It was barely 7 a.m. in Denver. He had still been asleep.

"I'm getting out," Katina said again. "November the 10th."

"Seriously? That's what up!" Demaryius said. They shouted together for a moment, and then Demaryius calmed her down. "You know what that means, right?" he said, and before she could answer he was already looking up the Broncos schedule on his phone and rattling off dates. "This is the season you're finally coming to a game," he said.

THEY RELEASED KATINA so quickly after Obama's pardon that nobody had time to come get her from prison. She bought a ticket for a Greyhound bus from Tallahassee to Atlanta, and a taxicab waited for her outside the prison's walls to take her to the station. She got into the cab and heard the doors lock shut behind her. She had never heard that sound before; all of her early '90s cars had been equipped with manual locks. "What are you doing?" she yelled at the cab driver, in what would be her first of many panic attacks. "Why are you trapping me in?" She pushed and rattled the door while the driver tried to explain the concept of automatic locks.

The terms of her release required her to spend three months in a halfway house outside Atlanta and then a year on parole with limited out-of-state travel. But even that small amount of freedom was enough to overwhelm and confuse her. She set up a bank account but couldn't figure out how to swipe the ATM card. She drove to her favorite Blockbuster by the mall in Dublin, Georgia, and found the video store gone and the mall hollowed out. She called Demaryius, overwhelmed again, and said she needed to find a strategy to help her stay calm. "Maybe music," she said, and so she asked Demaryius if he could send her a Walkman.

"You're like three generations behind," Demaryius said, once he had finally stopped laughing.

Demaryius had no time to travel to see her during the season, and Katina's probation officer wouldn't allow her to leave Georgia for the first 60 days. That ban finally ended the week before the Broncos hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in a divisional playoff game. Katina got permission to travel and made plans to meet Demaryius' father, Bobby Thomas, at the Atlanta airport on the Saturday before the game. (The couple were estranged but treated each other kindly.) She had flown only once before, in handcuffs from the inmate processing center in Oklahoma to her prison in Tallahassee, and now she boarded the Southwest flight shaking from a combination of nerves and excitement. She took pictures to capture each mundane detail. "Like a kid in a candy store, going on about every little nothing," Bobby said. How good were those peanuts?! And the automatic sink in that tiny little bathroom! Those mountains! That snow!

When they finally landed in Denver, it was Demaryius' recorded voice that greeted passengers on the airport train to baggage claim. "Welcome to the Mile High City," he said, acting as its ambassador, and Katina clung hard for the handrail to keep from passing out from shock.

She was nervous about everything, but what felt strangest of all was her anxiety about seeing him. She had talked to Demaryius almost every day in prison, and before every game, but they had seen each other only half a dozen times in the prison visitation room. His physical presence was unfamiliar to her, and his fame was foreign. She walked into his house in the suburb of Aurora and dropped her bags in the foyer. He pulled her into a hug and she started to cry. He seemed so big, so grown-up and self-assured.

"Tour?" Demaryius asked, reaching for her hand, excited to show her all six bedrooms, the basement lounge and the groundhogs in his sweeping backyard. But Katina was still clutching him, taking it in. "Hold on," she said. "I need a minute just to get my head around all of this."

She tried that afternoon to be the mother she remembered being, but it felt a little like playing a role. She put in a load of his laundry. She organized his fan mail into neat file folders. She helped his father, Bobby, pay off the overdue toll tickets they found scattered around the house. Demaryius, meanwhile, tried to do what he thought was expected of a son, pampering her, teasing her and presenting her with gifts. He gave her a custom-made Broncos jersey, a tribute to the sweatshirt Katina had worn to support him long ago in junior high. There was his nickname, Bay-Bay, stitched again onto the back, but this time it was glittered and bejeweled. Katina put it on. She wished him luck before he left for the game. "No regrets," she said. "No fear."

She took dozens of pictures on her cellphone during their trip into the stadium. How massive was that parking lot! That crowd! And could you believe all those horse statues! And those seats in their skybox, so orange they seemed to almost glow! She watched Demaryius catch a decisive two-point conversion. Peyton Manning gave her the game ball. She took pictures afterward with every Broncos player and even signed a few autographs herself.

Not until they got back to Demaryius' house did she finally relax enough to put her phone away. She started another load of Demaryius' laundry at midnight, even though her flight left the next morning at 6. She organized more fan mail. She read a note to Demaryius from the family of an 11-year-old boy who had died in a rafting accident, asking for permission to have the boy buried in Demaryius' No. 88 Broncos jersey. "It's just hard to believe this is the person my son became," she said.

Sometime after 1 a.m., Katina walked into the living room and there was her famous son, sitting on the couch and playing a game on his phone. Everyone else was asleep. The house was quiet. It was just the two of them.

"Sit down and relax a minute," he told her, and she settled next to him on the couch. She closed her eyes. She leaned her head against him.

"It's really happening. I'm actually here," she said, and after a while she fell asleep on his chest.

IT'S LATE JANUARY now and she wants to be with him again. The Super Bowl -- that is her biggest reason to go. "I went years being away from him and now I don't want to go two weeks," she says one morning, looking over the Super Bowl travel itinerary the Broncos sent to family members. The team suggests she travel to San Francisco on the Thursday before the game. She can see Demaryius for dinner on Friday, again for a few hours on Saturday, and then again from her seat at the stadium. But the itinerary also details a series of logistics: bus schedules, hotel recommendations and security protocols. "It's all so out of my comfort zone," she says.

A week before she's supposed to leave for the game, she drives to Macon with her sister to shop for a Super Bowl outfit. She still isn't sure whether she'll go, but she wants to be prepared. She wore the same prison jumpers for 15 years, never once giving a thought to her clothes, and now she can't decide between casual and formal. "What do women wear in California?" she asks a clerk at one store. "Is this too casual for a party?" she asks at the next. She circles through five stores and then goes back to the first. She comes home with an outfit that leaves her uncertain, like so much else. Here comes another wave of anxiety. Here comes a headache. Here come more questions -- so many rushing out at once.

"What if I can't find the hotel? What if I get lost?" she asks, sitting at lunch with Demaryius' father, who plans to travel again with Katina to the game.

"You won't get lost," he says. "I wouldn't let that happen."

"What about the crowds? All those people?"

"You'll get used to all that," he says.

"What if they're hard on Demaryius? You know I can't take that."

"He's grown now. He can handle it," he says.

The lunch ends but the questions keep coming. She needs to feel certain. She needs to be reassured. She speaks again to her parole officer: "It should be fine," he tells her, suggesting that she will probably be cleared to travel.

She speaks to her mother, Minnie Pearl, who is still in prison and hoping for clemency herself. They watched the last Super Bowl together. Now it will be just Minnie in the common lounge with that bolted TV, and Katina is afraid Minnie will feel more alone knowing Katina is at the game. "Go," Minnie tells her. "You have to be there."

She speaks again with Demaryius. He wants her to come. There is so much on the line: a chance to solidify his reputation as one of the game's best receivers, to redeem a sometimes shaky season, to win his first championship, to earn a trip to the White House where he will be able to thank Obama in person for the act of clemency that brought his mother home. "It's your ticket," Demaryius tells Katina a week before the game. "Do you want it?"

No regrets. No fear. How many moments in his life has she already missed?

"I'll be there," she says.